Let’s not sugarcoat it: Living in a van during the winter comes with a few extra challenges. That’s not to say that continuing or even starting van life in winter isn’t worth the effort. While it requires more planning and patience, it can pay off with enviable rewards (looking at you, traveling Epic Pass holders and hikers enjoying empty trails in national parks). Do your homework and learn what it takes to handle the weather and the elements. And visit companies like GEAR AID to get the supplies you need to travel safely and comfortably.
Winter is coming. So, gear up, top off the antifreeze, and follow these tips for a successful season of snowy outdoor adventures, a la #vanlife.
1. Check the Road Conditions
This one is huge for winter van-lifers. Save yourself the danger of icy highways and the heartache of getting your van stuck in the snow by staying up to date with current weather and road conditions. It definitely helps to check the forecast before you make any driving or camping plans. But, keep in mind that winter weather in some regions can be pretty unpredictable. Make it a habit to check often for updated forecasts.
For road conditions, seek out the local sources. Every state in the U.S. has a Department of Transportation, with websites that provide the most current road conditions. Most state transportation departments also have phone numbers to call for live updates. In some regions, highways may close before big storms start and remain closed for several hours or even days after to clear snow and repair damage. All in all, it’s best to check road conditions even when the sky looks clear.
2. Upgrade to Winter Tires
All-terrain, snow-rated tires will be your best friend for winter van life. Be aware that many “all-season” tires are not actually rated for snow or winter travel. If you’re in doubt about the tires on your van, stop into a mechanic or tire shop to have them checked, and then upgrade your tires if necessary. Also, keep in mind that the winter tires you put on the car last season might not be up to snuff after months of van life. All those miles of adventuring can take a toll on your tire tread faster than you’d think.
3. Carry Safety Equipment
Any time you travel, it’s crucial to carry supplies for emergencies, but it’s especially important in the winter. Stock your kit with road flares, two towing straps, jumper cables, a vehicle toolset, first aid kit, high visibility vest, and gloves. Be sure to add a snow shovel and tire chains when gearing up for winter travel. If you’ve never put on tire chains before, practice before winter starts. When you’re in a storm on the side of the highway, you’ll be glad you’re not attempting it for the first time.
4. Pack the 10 Essentials
For any excursion outdoors, you should carry the classic Ten Essentials, a collection of items that will allow you to handle or avoid emergencies. Even while traveling in a van, it’s smart to be ready for all kinds of situations you might encounter in winter. Keep your Ten Essentials kit in its own bin or bag during winter so you can quickly grab it and go in an emergency. It should include navigation tools, a light source and batteries, sun protection, first-aid supplies, a knife, the necessities for making fire, shelter (keeping a tent or bivy in the van is always a good idea!), extra food and water, and appropriate clothes.
5. Stock Up on Indoor Entertainment
During winter, the sun goes down in the afternoon and temperatures drop quickly. So, you’ll spend several hours inside your van before turning in for the night. While this may seem less appealing than a warm summer evening of hiking or fishing, it can also be a nice opportunity to switch up your routine. Dive into the books you meant to read in the summer. If you love elaborate camp dinner recipes, this is the perfect time to grab the chopping board and start cooking.
Stock up on a few games for passing the time—a chess set, playing cards, and the game Settlers of Catan are all favorites for winter van life. Take advantage of the extra evening hours to invite over new friends for a game night (and some of the fancy risotto you’ve had simmering).
6. Plan Creative Evenings
Camp near a town so you can escape the van for a few hours and enjoy spending time in a cafe or pub.
There are plenty of ways to stay entertained inside the van after sunset, but, you’ll occasionally crave something a little different to ward off cabin – rather, van? – fever. For a change of pace, camp near a town where you can hang out in a café or bar for the evening. You’d be surprised how many hours you can happily pass in the warmth of a local pub before curling up in the van for the night. Scope out fun events and meet-ups posted on café community boards or local Facebook groups. An open-mic night, live music jam, or occasional ping-pong tournament in a local hangout can be a welcome escape from the cold and a fun way to meet people on the road.
7. Get a Van-Suitable Heater
Even the best of insulation jobs may not stand up to harsh winter conditions. A few weeks of frozen fingers and wearing beanies around the clock might have you dreaming of indoor heating. Fortunately, portable heaters that run on propane are readily available (the Mr. Heater Buddy is a winter van life staple) and can be the ultimate game-changer for your comfort. In such a small space, a little heating power goes a long way.
The winter has its challenges, but this new experience might make you appreciate van life even more. As you change up your routine to deal with short days and cold nights, you’ll discover new interests and new forms of entertainment. Plus, you’ll have the freedom to explore more mountains in winter and escape the summer crowds. In many ways, winter van life is the best life.
Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with GEAR AID.